Archive for the 'Music' Category

Great moments in opera: Falstaff

April 6, 2014

Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera, written six years after the triumph of Otello, when he was in his late 70s. The subject came as a surprise: it was, if I am not mistaken, Verdi’s first comedy. Although it has not been as popular with audiences as his great tragedies, it is generally considered to be a masterpiece on its own terms.

This opera is prodigiously inventive — indeed, it is almost too full of ideas, restless and fleet of foot as it leaps nimbly from one thing to the next. A beautiful musical line will come up, the sort of thing that in another opera would be lingered over and savoured, but here it makes its appearance and is dropped. The music dashes off to something else. The opera is also notable for the number of ensemble pieces it contains. Mozart, whose comedies had (and still do) set the standard to meet, had laid down an implicit challenge to later composers in his marvellous ensembles, especially the famous septet in Le Nozze di Figaro. Verdi accepts the challenge in Falstaff: there is at least one nonet, and also, if I remember rightly, an octet. They are a lot of fun, full of complicated rhythms banging up against one another.

Something which immediately strikes the listener, maybe especially the non-Italian-speaking listener, is how very wordy this opera is. It is not quite patter songs all the way through, but there is a lot of rapid dialogue, very few melismas, and the rhythms are brisk.

A big question about Falstaff is how faithful its central character is to Shakespeare’s original. Granted, it takes a kind of mad courage to even attempt to adapt this character, widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most miraculous creations, to another medium. If I tried it, I should surely fail. I am not convinced that Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, entirely succeeded either. The basic lineaments are there: Falstaff is a drunk, a womanizer, a spendthrift, with a passion for life and adventure. But Falstaff the invincible comic spirit, the magnanimous heart, the man whom Chesterton described as “shaking with hilarity like a huge jelly, full of the broad farce of the London streets” — I am not sure that he makes an appearance in Verdi’s version. In the DVD performance I watched, I did not see him — this Falstaff was more of a buffoon, rather sadly fallen prey to his own follies — but I am not sure how much of that impression to attribute to the particular production I saw and how much to the opera itself. It’s a question that I leave open for now.

After that rather long preamble, let’s hear a few excerpts from the opera.

Although most of the music of Falstaff is jaunty and hasty and doesn’t try to ravish the listener’s ear, there are two characters, young lovers named Fenton and Nannetta, whose music is always lyrical and romantic. Whenever they open their mouths, and especially when they are together, it is as though we are transported into another world, or another opera (and Verdi has some fun with this later, as we’ll see). But, as with almost every musical idea Falstaff, even these lovely interludes don’t last long. Here are Fenton and Nanetta singing a duet called Bocca baciata non perde ventura; it is over in about 40 s.

The basic story of Act I is that Falstaff, who owes a large tab at the tavern and finds himself penniless, sends love letters to several local women with the hope of seducing them and getting their money. The trouble is that the women in question all know about his duplicity. In this section, which closes Act I, they — and their husbands — all swear to revenge themselves on Falstaff. This nonet is one of the big ensemble numbers of the opera. I apologize that the quality is not great; it goes on for about 2 minutes.

In Act II the women plan to trick Falstaff and they hatch a strategy. The action eventually results in Falstaff’s hiding in a laundry basket which is carried out and dumped into the river, much to Falstaff’s chagrin and everyone else’s amusement.

In the final act, Falstaff is tricked again in an elaborate scheme that involves dressing up as fairies and much besides; I confess I didn’t quite follow all the details. The action takes place outside the town, by an old oak tree, and before Falstaff and the others arrive we have a nice little scene with Fenton and Nannetta. Fenton arrives first, and sings a beautiful aria, as though he were in a bel canto romance and not a Verdian comedy. He sings Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola / (“From my lips, a song of ecstasy flies”), dilating at length on his love for Nannetta. When he finally sings “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure,” Nannetta enters with a charming answer: “Indeed, they renew it, like the moon.” The two join in a ravishing duet that seems to be building to a glorious climax but — and this is a really nice comic moment — they are interrupted at the last moment by the entrance of another character. The interruption is so abrupt that it is as though the music falls off a cliff. Here it is (with Spanish subtitles, alas); the interruption occurs at 3:30 in this clip:

In the same act Nannetta has a ravishing solo aria, Sul fil d’un soffio etesio, which she sings in the guise of the Fairy Queen, calling the fairies to a dance. Here it is sung by an unnamed soprano, with English subtitles:

But Verdi saves his best for last: the most famous section of Falstaff is the finale, Tutto nel mundo (Everyone in the world). The composer has one final trick up his sleeve: a fugue! I do not know if there are fugues in any of Verdi’s other operas; right now I cannot think of one. In any case, it is a form that is not associated with Italian opera, to put it mildly, and the fact that Verdi reached for it in the final section of his last opera strikes me as quite remarkable. Is it a tribute to Bach, one master to another? Or merely a sparkling musical witticism? Here it is:

Happy birthday, J.S. Bach

March 31, 2014

It’s Bach’s birthday, and, turning the tables, he has kindly offered us a gift. Here is the “Dona nobis pacem” section that concludes the Mass in B Minor:

That’s Jordi Savall on the podium, leading La Capella Reial de Catalunya.

Last piece of gum, Jamaican rum, etc.

March 22, 2014

The comment thread to a recent post brought to my attention Rolling Stone‘s list of greatest rock albums. In the Top 10 one finds both the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and (much the better of the two!) Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Reading through the blurbs about each album, I was surprised to learn that there is a connection between John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” and Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” (which appear, respectively, on the two records in question). Since one of the aims of my pop music odyssey is to explore influences between the singers and songwriters I am following, this seems a good case study.

There are contradictory reports about the direction of influence. Some say that Dylan wrote “Fourth Time Around,” played it for the Beatles, and that Lennon subsequently wrote “Norwegian Wood” as a kind of homage, trying to incorporate aspects of Dylan’s songwriting style. Others say that Lennon wrote “Norwegian Wood” first and that Dylan, hearing it as attempt to ape his style — nobody denies that Lennon wrote it with Dylan very much in mind — wrote “Fourth Time Around” as a rejoinder and, possibly, as a rebuke. Lennon was allegedly left shaken by the final lines of the song (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine”), which he took, rightly or wrongly, as directed at him.

Although I don’t know that I’ve had made the connection between these two songs without reading about the background, there are similarities. One of the striking things about “Norwegian Wood,” for instance, is that its meaning is unusually opaque — unusually for the Beatles, that is, who had made their fame on straightforward love songs. Dylan, on the other hand, was the master of opacity at this point in his career, and “Fourth Time Around” is a fine example of his craft. In both songs, despite the occluding surrealism and the missing details, I think we can descry a lovers’ quarrel — much milder in the case of “Norwegian Wood,” but still hinted at (“this bird has flown”). The melodies are even similar, each with a lilting motif that turns back on itself. Dylan’s melody actually seems to move in a circle, fittingly given the title of the song.

Anyway, let’s listen to both songs. Which do you prefer?


Dylan’s studio recordings are hard to find on YouTube; this version of “Fourth Time Around” is from a 1966 concert in London.

Ash Wednesday, 2014

March 5, 2014

Of all the many musical settings of Psalm 51 130, my favourite is Arvo Pärt’s. It is luminously simple, but it never fails to move me. Even if you’ve not heard it before, I expect you would find it not too difficult to sing along with the score, and what better day to do it?

Great moments in opera: Death in Venice

February 25, 2014

Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, which premiered in 1973, was his last opera. It shares with most of his late music an understated and austere manner, and it deals with difficult subject matter.

Those difficulties are manifold. The opera, like Thomas Mann’s novella on which it is based, is concerned with the power of beauty over the life and work of an artist, or, more generally, with the power of eros in human life, where eros is to be understood in its widest connotation: as a longing directed toward the good, true, and beautiful. In his great book on love, Josef Pieper reminds us that in our tradition of moral and aesthetic reflection eros has been revered for its power to shake us out of complacency, to bring us face to face with the mystery and beauty of life, to call us out of ourselves. The touchstone philosophical text is Plato’s Phaedrus.

This is very much the theme of Britten’s opera, in which a renowned composer Gustav von Aschenbach (I almost wrote ‘Adrian von Leverkuhn’!) travels to Venice for refreshment and inspiration and finds himself shaken by an unexpected and overwhelming encounter with beauty. It is for him an occasion of profound spiritual awakening, calling into question his artistic vocation and his self-understanding.

And therein lies a further difficulty, for the beauty that so unnerves Aschenbach is the beauty of a young adolescent boy. Britten handles this delicate subject with kid gloves, so to speak, having Aschenbach refer to his “father’s pleasure” in the contemplation of young Tadzio, but subsequent developments suggest that this paternal stance was as much a result of Aschenbach’s failing resistance to his own feelings as anything else. It seems fairly clear that the love which springs up in Aschenbach’s heart is the fruit of eros in the wide sense, yes (and Aschenbach himself explicitly tries to interpret his own experience through the lens of the Phaedrus), but also eros in the narrower, sensual sense, and that gives the story an unsettling feeling. For these reasons, Death in Venice is a work that has about it a slightly sickening air — not wholly inappropriately, given the way the story unfolds.

And this is an important point: the story, though it flirts with pederasty, can hardly be seen as a celebration of it. The power of beauty to arouse passion is undeniable, and Aschenbach, who has lived a life of great discipline, is inspired by the luxurious backdrop of Venice, presided over by “the wanton sun”, to surrender himself to the beauty that he sees shining through Tadzio. He falls into a kind of frenzy, a loss of self-composure, in the presence of his beloved, and becomes a man of folly, even in his own eyes. It is a tailspin from which he is ultimately unable to free himself. So the opera, like the novella, presents itself as a forum for a great contest between eros and civilization, giving eloquent voice to the power of beauty over the human soul, but, in the end, sounding a warning about the dangers of surrender to it.

There are very few excerpts from this opera on YouTube; it is safe to say that never will a section of this opera appear on one of those “Greatest Hits of Opera” collections. Nonetheless, let’s hear a little of it.

We can begin at the beginning: the opera opens with a long monologue in which Aschenbach relates the personal and artistic cul-de-sac in which he finds himself, exhausted and without inspiration. Here is the opening portion of the monologue, sung by Hans Schöpflin in Barcelona in 2008:

Following this scene he has a series of mysterious encounters with a figure who reappears throughout the story in many guises (all sung by the same person). Under his influence, Aschenbach decides to journey to Venice for rest and renewal. Here is the scene in which he arrives in Venice, preceded by the “Venice overture”. The gondolier is the same mysterious figure he saw before.

From there the opera winds its slow way downstream. Aschenbach encounters Tadzio, is overcome with feeling, and has long discussions with himself about the experience (and it must be said that Death in Venice is an unusually wordy opera). In the second half, he learns that cholera has come to Venice, causing many foreigners to flee. Aschenbach decides to go, but changes his mind when he remembers that it would mean leaving Tadzio. Eventually, of course, he himself falls ill. Hence the title.

Here is an excerpt taken from near the end of the opera, in which Aschenbach, his strength now failing, reflects once again on the troubling connections between beauty, passion, and “the wisdom poets crave”. Britten has supplied a haunting musical line, hinging upon a repeated figure with each occurrence of the name ‘Phaedrus’. Here again is Hans Schöpflin. The text, which is a little difficult to understand, I have attached below the clip:

Socrates knew, Socrates told us. Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus? Yes, but through the senses. Can poets take this way then? For senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, passion leads to knowledge, knowledge to forgiveness, to compassion with the abyss. Should we then reject it, Phaedrus, the wisdom poets crave, seeking only form and pure detachment, simplicity and discipline? But this is beauty, Phaedrus, Discovered through the senses, and senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, and passion to the abyss. And now Phaedrus, I will go. But you stay here, and when your eyes no longer see me, then you go too.

I cannot find any other excerpts of sufficiently good quality to post here, so this will have to do. I suppose that, on balance, I have been slightly disappointed by this opera. The theme, of the power of beauty, is one that actually means a great deal to me, and I count myself an admirer of Mann’s original story, but its operatic realization is a little too thorny, and perhaps too slow, to have won my affection.

A pop music odyssey

February 18, 2014

I suppose that everybody (with the exception of those who buy those confounded iPod Shuffles) has some way of structuring their music listening. I myself am partial to listening projects: I pick a certain period or genre or artist and focus on it or him or her for a while. I have in the past dwelt at length on Schubert’s songs, Josquin’s masses, Mahler’s symphonies, and Wagner’s operas, to name a few.

This year I’ve decided to embark upon a new listening project: a pop music odyssey. I’ve chosen a handful of singers whom I admire, or think I ought to admire, and I’ve decided to listen to their collective discographies in chronological order.

The cornerstone of this project will be the music of Bob Dylan, starting in 1962 and extending, over the course of 50-odd albums, to the present day. Interleaved with his albums I am also including the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and (the dark horse) Nick Cave. Actually, I’m only committing to a few of Nick Cave’s records because I’m more curious than fond, and I don’t think I’ll want to shell out for all of his records.

I thought of including Bruce Springsteen as well, but I did a Springsteen listening project three or four years ago, and I feel like there’s too much music there. This odyssey is going to be a long journey even without him.

For the record, here is the list, in order, of the records I am intending to include:

Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan (19 March 1962)
Bob Dylan – Live at the Gaslight (1962)
Beatles – Please Please Me (22 March 1963)
Bob Dylan – Freewheelin’ (27 May 1963)
Beatles – With the Beatles (22 November 1963)
Bob Dylan – The Times They are a Changin’ (13 January 1964)
Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (26 June 1964)
Bob Dylan – Another Side (8 August 1964)
Bob Dylan – Live 1964 (31 October 1964)
Beatles – Beatles for Sale (4 December 1964)
Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home (22 March 1965)
Beatles – Help! (6 August 1965)
Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (30 August 1965)
Beatles – Rubber Soul (3 December 1965)
Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde (22 May 1966)
Bob Dylan – Live 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” (25 May 1966)
Beatles – Revolver (5 August 1966)
Beatles – Sgt. Pepper (1 June 1967)
Van Morrison – Blowin’ Your Mind! (Sept 1967)
Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour (27 November 1967)
Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding (27 December 1967)
Leonard Cohen – Songs Of (27 December 1967)
Neil Young – Sugar Mountain [Live] (10 November 1968)
Neil Young – Neil Young (12 November 1968)
Beatles – White Album (22 November 1968)
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (November 1968)
Beatles – Yellow Submarine (13 January 1969)
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline (9 April 1969)
Leonard Cohen – Songs From a Room (April 1969)
Neil Young – Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (14 May 1969)
Beatles – Abbey Road (26 September 1969)
Van Morrison – Moondance (Feb 1970)
Neil Young – Live at the Fillmore East (March 1970) [2006]
Beatles – Let It Be (8 May 1970)
Bob Dylan – Self-Portrait (8 June 1970)
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush (31 August 1970)
Bob Dylan – New Morning (19 October 1970)
Bob Dylan – Another Self-Portrait (1970)
Van Morrison – His Band and the Street Choir (15 November 1970)
Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971 (19 January 1971)
Leonard Cohen – Songs of Love and Hate (March 1971)
Van Morrison – Tupelo Honey (October 1971)
Neil Young – Harvest (14 February 1972)
Van Morrison – St. Dominic’s Preview (July 1972)
Tom Waits – Closing Time (March 1973)
Bob Dylan – Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (13 July 1973)
Van Morrison – Hard Nose the Highway (August 1973)
Bob Dylan – Planet Waves (17 January 1974)
Van Morrison – It’s Too Late To Stop Now (January 1974)
Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece (February 1974)
Bob Dylan – Before the Flood [live] (20 June 1974)
Neil Young – On the Beach (16 July 1974)
Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremony (August 1974)
Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night (October 1974)
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (17 January 1975)
Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night (20 June 1975)
Bob Dylan – The Basement Tapes (26 June 1975)
Tom Waits – Nighthawks at the Diner (October 1975)
Bob Dylan – Live 1975 “Rolling Thunder Revue” (November 1975)
Neil Young – Zuma (10 November 1975)
Bob Dylan – Desire (16 January 1976)
Bob Dylan – Hard Rain [live] (10 September 1976)
Neil Young – Long May You Run (20 September 1976)
Tom Waits – Small Change (September 1976)
Neil Young – Chrome Dreams (1977) – unreleased
Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (April 1977)
Neil Young – American Stars ‘n Bars (13 June 1977)
Tom Waits – Foreign Affairs (Sept 1977)
Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man (November 1977)
Bob Dylan – Street Legal (15 June 1978)
Van Morrison – Wavelength (September 1978)
Tom Waits – Blue Valentine (September 1978)
Neil Young – Comes a Time (2 October 1978)
Bob Dylan – At Budokan (23 April 1979)
Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps (2 July 1979)
Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming (20 August 1979)
Van Morrison – Into the Music (August 1979)
Leonard Cohen – Recent Songs (September 1979)
Neil Young – Live Rust (19 November 1979)
Bob Dylan – Saved (20 June 1980)
Van Morrison – Common One (August 1980)
Tom Waits – Heartattack and Vine (September 1980)
Neil Young – Hawks & Doves (3 November 1980)
Bob Dylan – Shot of Love (12 August 1981)
Neil Young – Re-ac-tor (2 November 1981)
Van Morrison – Beautiful Vision (February 1982)
Neil Young – Trans (29 December 1982)
Van Morrison – Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (March 1983)
Neil Young – Everybody’s Rockin’ (1 August 1983)
Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombone (September 1983)
Bob Dylan – Infidels (1 November 1983)
Van Morrison – Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)
Nick Cave – From Her to Eternity (18 June 1984)
Bob Dylan – Real Live [live] (3 December 1984)
Van Morrison – A Sense of Wonder (December 1984)
Leonard Cohen – Various Positions (December 1984)
Bob Dylan – Empire Burlesque (8 June 1985)
Neil Young – Old Ways (12 August 1985)
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (30 September 1985)
Neil Young – A Treasure [Live] (1985) [2011]
Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (July 1986)
Neil Young – Landing on Water (28 July 1986)
Bob Dylan – Knocked Out Loaded (8 August 1986)
Neil Young – Life (6 July 1987)
Tom Waits – Frank’s Wild Years (17 August 1987)
Van Morrison – Poetic Champions Compose (Sept 1987)
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (February 1988)
Neil Young – This Note’s for You (11 April 1988)
Bob Dylan – Down in the Groove (31 May 1988)
Van Morrison – Irish Heartbeat (June 1988)
Nick Cave – Tender Prey (19 Sept 1988)
Bob Dylan – Dylan & The Dead [live] (6 February 1989)
Neil Young – Eldorado (17 April 1989)
Van Morrison – Avalon Sunset (6 June 1989)
Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy (22 September 1989)
Neil Young – Freedom (2 October 1989)
Neil Young – Ragged Glory (10 September 1990)
Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky (11 September 1990)
Van Morrison – Enlightenment (October 1990)
Van Morrison – Hymns to the Silence (September 1991)
Neil Young – Weld (22 October 1991)
Neil Young – Arc (1991)
Tom Waits – Bone Machine (8 September 1992)
Bob Dylan – Good As I Been To You (27 October 1992)
Neil Young – Harvest Moon (27 October 1992)
Leonard Cohen – The Future (27 November 1992)
Van Morrison – Too Long in Exile (June 1993)
Neil Young – MTV Unplugged (15 June 1993)
Bob Dylan – World Gone Wrong (26 October 1993)
Tom Waits – The Black Rider (2 November 1993)
Van Morrison – A Night in San Francisco [Live] (May 1994)
Neil Young – Sleeps with Angels (16 August 1994)
Bob Dylan – MTV Unplugged [live] (25 April 1995)
Van Morrison – Days Like This (June 1995)
Neil Young – Mirror Ball (27 June 1995)
Van Morrison – How Long Has This Been Going On? (June 1995)
Nick Cave – Murder Ballads (5 Feb 1996)
Neil Young – Dead Man (27 February 1996)
Neil Young – Broken Arrow (2 July 1996)
Van Morrison – Tell Me Something (October 1996)
Van Morrison – The Healing Game (March 1997)
Nick Cave – The Boatman’s Call (3 March 1997)
Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (30 September 1997)
Van Morrison – The Skiffle Sessions [Live] (1998)
Van Morrison – Back On Top (9 March 1999)
Tom Waits – Mule Variations (16 April 1999)
Neil Young – Silver & Gold (25 April 2000)
Van Morrison – You Win Again (25 Sept 2000)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (11 September 2001)
Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (9 October 2001)
Neil Young – Are you Passionate? (9 April 2002)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (May 2002)
Tom Waits – Blood Money (4 May 2002)
Tom Waits – Alice (4 May 2002)
Neil Young – Greendale (19 August 2002)
Van Morrison – What’s Wrong with this Picture? (21 Oct 2003)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (3 October 2004)
Leonard Cohen – Dear Heather (26 October 2004)
Van Morrison – Magic Time (16 May 2005)
Neil Young – Prairie Wind (27 September 2005)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (7 March 2006)
Neil Young – Living with War (8 May 2006)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (29 August 2006)
Neil Young – Living with War (19 December 2006)
Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II (23 October 2007)
Van Morrison – Keep It Simple (17 March 2008)
Neil Young – Fork in the Road (7 April 2009)
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life (28 April 2009)
Neil Young – Le Noise (28 September 2010)
Tom Waits – Bad As Me (21 October 2011)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (31 January 2012)
Neil Young – Americana (5 June 2012)
Bob Dylan – Tempest (11 September 2012)
Van Morrison – Born to Sing (2 Oct 2012)
Neil Young – Psychedelic Pill (30 October 2012)


I have no idea how long this project is going to take, but I hope there is a reasonable chance of my finishing before I die. I am looking forward to hearing not only how each individual singer developed, but how they influenced one another, if indeed they did. I don’t think many would disagree that Dylan was an important influence on everybody else, with the possible exception of Van Morrison.

When putting this list together, I was surprised to learn that the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and Cohen’s Songs Of were released on the same day. What a day that was!

It is fair to say that most of these folks, great as they are, have declined in creativity as they have aged. I suppose there is a possibility that I might abandon the project once I reach the desolation of the 1980s, but at the outset I have the wind in my sails and a song in my heart. Happy sailing to me.

Great moments in opera: Don Carlo

January 21, 2014

I am not sure whether this opera is properly called Don Carlo or Don Carlos. It exists in both Italian and French versions, which I think is the origin of the confusion. Verdi’s much-revised piece — there are both five- and four-act versions — is an example of the grandest of grand opera: about four hours long, and plump with international politics, ecclesiastical spectacle, and personal tragedy. As with so many of Verdi’s operas, it was unfamiliar to me until recently; I have both listened to and watched it now as a belated part of my Verdi anniversary observance.

The story is set in sixteenth-century Spain, in the troubled court of Philip II. Philip has recently married Elisabetta, a much younger woman who, unhappily for all concerned, had prior to the marriage been entangled in a romance with the king’s son, Don Carlo. Thus we have a love triangle of the most awkward sort at the heart of the royal family. Sixteenth-century Spain also means the Inquisition, of course, and there is a power-hungry and corrupt Grand Inquisitor to put a lurid face on things. Meanwhile there is political unrest in Spain’s Netherlandish provinces. These three elements — usurped love, Inquisition, and power politics — are the ingredients with which Verdi cooks his stew.

The brightest musical highlight of the opera comes early in the first Act: Don Carlo is reunited with his friend, Rodrigo, who has recently returned from a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands. They sing a rousing duet, Dio, che nell’alma infondere, in which they swear enduring friendship to one another. Here are Placido Domingo and Louis Quilco, with English subtitles:

Later in the first act is a lovely aria sung by Eboli, a third-wheel who is secretly in love with Don Carlo. Her song, Nel giardin del bello (In the garden of war), tells the story of a Moorish king who tries to woo an alluring, veiled beauty who turns out, much to his surprise, to be his wife. It’s a soprano showpiece, sung in this clip by Tatiana Troyanos at the Met, with English subtitles:

This motif of mistaken identity in romance anticipates the opening scene of Act II. Don Carlo has arranged to meet Elisabetta in the palace garden at night, and upon meeting her (as he supposes) he cannot resist professing his love for her. Yet he is mistaken: he has met Eboli, and she wrongly takes his profession of love as intended for her. The mistake realized, Don Carlo rejects her, and she, calling herself “a tigress with a wounded heart”, vows to revenge herself on him. At this point Rodrigo enters the garden and intervenes. What follows is a marvellous trio, sung here by Luciano Pavarotti (Don Carlo), Luciana d’Intino (Eboli), and Paolo Coni (Rodrigo) in Milan. This clip begins with Rodrigo’s entrance; the trio really starts to gather steam about one minute in.

Later in this act we get one of Verdi’s splendid choruses: the scene depicts the preparations for an auto-da-fé, and the unruliness of the crowd is well captured in the music. Probably you’ll recognize the tune. This is a concert performance, and a pretty good one:

I’ll select just one highlight from Act III: King Philip sings Ella giammai m’amò (She never loved me), in which he meditates on the inevitability of death and laments his loveless marriage. This is one of the great arias for bass voice, sung here by Ildar Abdrazakov. I cannot find a version with English subtitles, but the text and translation can be seen here.

Likewise, one highlight from the fourth and final act: Don Carlo must leave Spain to avoid his father’s wrath, and Elisabetta prays for strength to be parted from him forever. As her thoughts turn to France and the early days of their romance, she sings Tu che le vanita conoscesti (You who have known the vanity). Here is a treat: rare footage of Maria Callas singing live!

This is from 1962, so quite late in her career, when she was past her prime, but what a voice! Mesmerizing. (To hear her sing the same aria in 1958, go here. This is a calibre of singing from which one never quite recovers.)

Don Carlo has a dramatic finale which, however, I shall not showcase here. Suffice to say that all the main elements I stressed at the beginning — politics, religion, and tragedy — come together for a conclusion that is ne’er to be forgotten. If you think it ends well, you’ve not seen enough operas.

Goldbergs, with commentary

January 14, 2014

In this short video Jeremy Denk talks us through one or two of the Goldberg variations. It’s an engaging little illustration of the simultaneous playfulness and formal structure of Bach’s music. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing.

Favourites of 2013: Classical music

January 8, 2014

My music listening this year was anchored by a few large listening projects: I marked the anniversary years of Verdi, Wagner, and Britten by dedicating a good deal of time to hearing their major works again — or, in some cases, for the first time. Given the composers involved, much of this music was opera, and I tried when possible to watch performances of their operas on DVD. I’ve written about some of that music in the consistently unpopular “Great moments in opera” series that I’ve been running (and a few more anniversary-related instalments will trickle out over the next month or two).

I had planned a bunch of other focused listening projects for the year too — Beethoven’s symphonies, Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, Schubert’s piano sonatas — but I didn’t get to them. They are bumped to 2014.

In the meantime, I’d like to share notes on a few of the best recordings I heard for the first time this year. In most cases these are new or new-ish recordings, but not in all. The predominance of vocal music reflects my interests. The ordering of this list is capricious.

weinberg-violinWeinberg: Complete Violin Sonatas
Linus Roth, Jose Gallardo
(Challenge, 2013)

For the last few years music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has figured in my year-end accolades, and the same is true this year. This three-disc set is the first complete recorded set of Weinberg’s music for violin and piano, and what a treasure it is! Weinberg wrote six very substantial violin sonatas that exhibit the same musical intelligence and emotional heft that I have admired in his string quartets. As I said of the quartets, this music is “music all the way down”: no pedantry, no gimmicks, no self-conscious preoccupation with the music or its manner of composition — just good, smart, heart-felt music that is full of variety and endlessly interesting. I am happy to see Weinberg’s star rising higher on the strength of recordings like this one. Move over, Prokofiev.

Here is a brief video with musical excerpts and interviews with the musicians:

Elgar: The ApostlesElgar_Apostles
Halle Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder
(Halle, 2012)

This recording of Elgar’s oratorio about the life of Christ, from the calling of the apostles to the Ascension, won BBC Music Magazine’s “Recording of the Year”; there may have been some Anglo-centric prejudice informing that decision, but this is a terrific performance of a piece that hasn’t been very well served on record (and which, I suspect, might not finally be top-shelf music). The great fear with Elgar is that amateur British choral societies are going to get their hands on him, serving up bloated and sentimental renditions of his music before the potluck. It is amazing to hear this music sung as crisply and clearly as it is here, with a cool glow and as much dramatic emphasis as the music can bear without buckling. The singing is really tremendous, especially in the choral sections, and the sound is as clear and vivid as one could hope for. This recording has made me reconsider the merits of this piece, and made the reconsideration a pleasure. [Listen to excerpts]

Jonas Kaufmann
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles

(Decca, 2013)

Jonas Kaufmann, who glowers from the front cover of this CD, is considered one of the leading tenors in the opera world today, and he really is prodigiously gifted: a magnificent voice that rings from top to bottom, great power, and keen dramatic instincts. It is this last that has most impressed me on this disc of Wagner extracts. For all that Wagner was undoubtedly a great composer, it has nevertheless often seemed to me that his genius was principally manifest in his orchestral writing, and that his vocal lines were largely meandering eddies floating atop the surging currents, lacking dramatic shape and melodic interest in themselves. I won’t say that this recording has changed my opinion about his melodic gifts, but it has certainly made me reconsider my assessment of the dramatic shape of his writing. Never before have I heard Wagner sung in a way that brought out the taut dramatic energy, the sheer poise and responsiveness of the part as much as Kaufmann does. He has helped me to hear Wagner with new appreciation, and that is enough to get this recording onto this list.

Libera Nos: The Cry of the Oppressedlibera-nos
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
(Signum, 2013)

The programme on this CD is a well-conceived one, gathering together a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century choral works on the themes of oppression and liberation by English and Portuguese composers. English Catholics in this period suffered persecution by the authorities, and Portugal was under the domination of the Spanish monarchy. Composers turned to these (mostly) liturgical texts to express their prayers for deliverance with a degree of personal feeling that is rare in public ecclesiastical music. The music is breathtakingly beautiful, of course, and the singing on this recording is very distinguished. Contrapunctus is a British choir formed in 2010; this is their first recording. They are a small ensemble of about ten voices, men and women, and they sing with astounding clarity and beauty; I don’t hear any problems anywhere. The multi-layered harmonic and rhythmic complexity of these pieces comes across sounding effortless (which it certainly is not) and, what is more important for this particular programme, there is nothing impersonal about the singing: it has a plaintive, striving quality that suits these pieces very well. Top shelf. [Listen to excerpts]

ockeghemOckeghem: Missa Mi-Mi
Cappella Pratensis, Rebecca Stewart
(Ricercar, 1999)

It was a year or two ago that I discovered the Dutch ensemble Cappella Pratensis. I liked them well enough to go searching through their back catalogue, and in this recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Mi-Mi I found a real gem. This Mass is one of Ockeghem’s most frequently recorded, and I have heard it many times, but never with this degree of translucence and calm repose. I tend to bristle at the common view that the music of this period is “relaxing” or “peaceful”, as though these frequently very difficult, intricate, and rigourously structured compositions were merely a kind of soporific. Yet in this case there would be something to that rough characterization, for this ensemble finds in this music a spaciousness and gentleness that lifts the eyes and touches the heart in a quite special way. The music breathes in long, slow rhythms, unhurried, as though content, at each moment, simply to be an expression of praise and a profusion of beauty. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Ockeghem sung in this way before; I don’t know that I ever will again. The Mass is presented in a quasi-liturgical context, embedded within the Propers for the Mass of Holy Thursday, and the programme ends with Ockeghem’s magnificent motet Intemerata Dei mater.

Here is the Kyrie of the Missa Mi-Mi:

Bach: Cantatas, Vol.55Suzuki-Bach_Cantatas_55
Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki
(BIS, 2013)

This disc is on this list not so much for its own merits — although it is exceptionally good — but for what it represents: the completion of Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan’s twenty-years-long project to record all of Bach’s surviving cantatas. Should I be ashamed to admit that I have collected all fifty-five volumes? Maybe so, but think of all the beer I didn’t buy. Japan might not be the country we think of first when we think of Bach (quite wrongly, perhaps), but the proof is in the pudding: the performances on this disc and across the whole set have been consistently excellent. Suzuki’s approach to the music is “historically informed”, which means in practice that the choir is small and lithe, the textures light, and the rhythms sprightly. It’s Bach played and sung just the way I like it. Here is the Bach Collegium Japan performing one of the cantatas on this final disc. Bravo!

sainte-chapelleWhitacre: Sainte-Chapelle
Tallis Scholars
(Gimell, 2013)

Eric Whitacre is one of the more successful young composers working today. As far as I know, he writes mostly choral music, in an accessible idiom within the reach of amateur choirs, and quite a few recordings of his music are now available. He was commissioned by the Tallis Scholars to write a piece to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their founding, and he came up with Sainte-Chapelle, a piece which imagines the stained-glass angels in that beautiful church singing the Sanctus. The piece was premiered early in 2013 and recorded shortly thereafter. It must be said that it is a gorgeous piece, growing in energy and luminosity as it goes. I had never before heard the Tallis Scholars sing anything other than Renaissance polyphony, but Whitacre’s writing respects their area of specialization, growing out a plainchant melody just as so many Renaissance pieces do. I’ve played this recording so frequently this year that I cannot but include it on this year-end list.


Honourable mentions:

ludfordLudford: Missa Regnum mundi
Blue Heron
(Blue Heron, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]



schubertSchubert: Nacht und Traume
Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz
(Harmonia Mundi, 2011)



howells-requiemHowells: Requiem
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Stephen Layton
(Hyperion, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]



yoffe-songofsongsYoffe: Song of Songs
Rosamunde Quartett, Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2011)



philippe-herreweghe-victoria-officium-defunctorumVictoria: Officium Defunctorum
Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)



mahler2-zanderMahler: Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Sarah Connolly, Miah Persson
Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander
(Linn, 2013)


praetorius-adventPraetorius: Advent and Christmas Music
Bremer Barock Consort, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2007)


Favourites of 2013: Popular music

January 6, 2014

The year 2013 looked good on paper: there were new records from Sam Phillips, Arcade Fire, Neko Case, and Richard Buckner. But, for me at least, most of those records fizzled, and at year’s end I find myself holding just a couple of albums that I enjoyed enough to return to again and again.


Child-Ballads-Cover1-150x150Child Ballads
Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer
(Wilderland, 2013)

Anaïs Mitchell made a dramatic entrance a few years ago with Hadestown, a folk-opera on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice that earned a heap of critical accolades. In 2012 she followed up with Young Man in America, and the accolades continued to pile up. But she’s topped them both, to my ears, with this collection of folk ballads sung and played with Jefferson Hamer. The Child Ballads (pronounced ‘Chilled Ballads’, I believe) are all taken from a manuscript collection of English and Scottish ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the nineteenth century. These ballads, in manuscript, are texts only, and Mitchell and Hamer have apparently written their own melodies and made their own arrangements. The results are terrific. The songs themselves are outstanding: ballads about drowned lovers, supernatural encounters, doomed voyages, and riddling maidens have that authentic whiff of the culture of old England. Hamer is not as characterful a singer as Mitchell — or, more precisely, his voice is not as characterful as hers — but they make a nice pair. This was the record I listened to more frequently and with more delight than any other this year, and it is my album of the year.

The sound in this video is a bit thin, but the song is great.


Life is Peoplebillfay.11298alt
Bill Fay
(Dead Oceans, 2012)

Bill Fay was not known to me before I saw this record pop up on a number of “Best of 2012″ lists. Apparently Fay had made two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums in the 1970s, and then fell silent for 40 years until he was coaxed back into the studio by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. He has made a remarkably attractive record in Life is People, which shows us the work of a songwriter of quiet confidence and tenderness. If these songs are the fruit of his life’s meditation on love, wonder, family, death, and God, then it seems that he has lived well, for the songs, despite their simplicity, are marked by an unusual depth and economy of expression about matters not often well-treated in popular music. To interpret the album’s title as a rejoinder to Sartre’s “Hell is other people” would not be inappropriate, for Fay comes to give thanks for other people, for the beauty of nature, and for existence itself. The arrangements range from simple piano accompaniment (“The Never Ending Happening”) to lushly orchestrated numbers complete with gospel choir (“Be at Peace with Yourself”). It is true that not all of the songs resonate with me, but there is enough substance on this record to have absorbed my attention over many listens, and it is not through with me yet.


Honourable Mentions: Audrey Assad: Fortunate Fall; Sam Phillips: Push Any Button; Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City.



Apart from those found on the records I’ve already praised, there were a few songs that stood out for me this year.

If I had a songwriting award to give, I would give it to Josh Ritter for “A Certain Light”, from his record The Beast in Its Tracks. I love a song that seems to be telling one story, and then, because of a detail let drop or a turn of phrase, coyly reveals that it’s actually about something quite different. Josh Ritter does that here, in what is a pretty sweet love song — or is it?

The title track from Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose is nothing flashy, but I don’t know that I’ve heard a better country song in a long while. It almost feels like it could have been pulled from Dolly Parton’s early records, when she could be fresh and sweet and sad all at once. It was co-written with Guy Clark, which makes sense. Too bad he didn’t help write her other songs.

First Aid Kit is a duo that was new to me this year. Their plangent voices might be an acquired taste, but I fell for “Emmylou”, which comes from their record The Lion’s Roar. Is it because of the catchy hook in the chorus? The alt-country name-dropping? The evocation of gorgeous country duets of days gone by? Yes, yes, and yes.


I’m interested to hear about other good records released this year (or any other year, for that matter).


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